Everybody has that one movie. That singular film which is always guaranteed to tug at your heartstrings even when you know that it might not be the most technically perfect film. Either its themes hit you in such a way as to perfectly break down your emotional walls, or its music and visuals are so finely crafted that even a lackluster story can keep you enthralled. For me, that film is without a doubt the 1999 live-action science fiction comedy-drama The Bicentennial Man.
Based on the 1992 novel The Positronic Man by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (though that was itself based on an earlier 1972 short story The Bicentennial Man) and starring one of my personal heroes, Robin Williams, I was suddenly compelled to give my opinion on a film that has largely been dismissed by the critical community as "dull" and a "letdown".
I make no apologies for stating that I have a soft spot for this film and I hope by explaining why, I might enable you all to see this film from my perspective and, hopefully, either gain a greater appreciation for it or understand myself just a little bit better.
- Directed by Chris Columbus
- Produced by Touchstone Pictures
- MPAA Rating: PG
- Running Time: 132 Minutes
Bicentennial Man tells the story of Andrew Martin, played by Robin Williams, an android that discovers that he was created with a unique "defect" within his positronic brain that enables him to express creativity and emotional complexities far outside of his initial parameters. These differences catch the attention of his owners, the Martin family, especially the patriarch of the family Richard "Sir" Martin (played by Sam Neill) and the youngest daughter Amanda "Little Miss", and they help to foster this level of creativity and emotional development.
From these lessons, Andrew begins a 200 year journey to uncover what exactly it means to be alive and to be a human being. A journey that will take him from courtroom to laboratory to the very halls of government in the hopes of recognizing him for exactly who he is.
My adoration of this film is singularly immense. And that comes from several important angles. In the past, I have made no secret of my love for Robin Williams as a comedian and performer and he really had to go out of his way for this role. Williams' was always a deeply emotional actor and I adored his work in Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society. For as much as Williams' was a comedic actor, his capacity for drama was something to behold and thankfully both are on display in Bicentennial Man.
Andrew Martin as a character is the central focus of the film and as such, Williams' performance has to match the importance of that role; and for most part, I think he performs flawlessly. He has several moments of comedy, especially in the beginning when he is trying to get a sense for what it means to be a robot, but this innocence shifts quite naturally as Andrew ages and witnesses more and more loss and tragedy in his life.
This leaves the film at a very tear-inducing, yet ultimately hopeful finale as is easily among my favorite endings in film. I will admit that there are moments later in the story that are kind of cringe and soap opera-ish, but the heartfelt and truly dramatic moments really help to alleviate any of the concerns and make them worth getting through.
Much of that emotional strength is due in large part to a stunning soundtrack, composed by the legendary James Horner, with special notice to be given for the song "Then You Look At Me" sung by Celine Dion. I adore the music of this film and oftentimes find myself listening to it whenever I need some mood music for writing. It really pulls on the heartstrings. Especially Dion's work which I find ways to often listen to when I am jamming in the car on my way to work or running errands. In my eyes, the music of Bicentennial Man is simply flawless.
The visuals and characters on the other hand....
Don't get wrong, the practical effects for Andrew's robotic self is very well done and the futuristic world is lovingly thought out, but it is otherwise a fairly average looking film. Bicentennial Man doesn't really do anything ground-breaking or spectacular from a visual standpoint and really has a lighting and visual style that almost seems like it might in with The Bold and the Beautiful, rather than more typical science fiction works. That fact that the film is also, at its heart, a romance film in the second half also goes a long way to explain the elements of melodrama inherent in nearly every aspect of this film.
And while that melodrama is wonderful in terms of getting an emotional moment out of events, it is curtailed by the wider cast being rather hit or miss throughout much of the film. Sam Neill is exceptionally wise and profound as the Martin family patriarch and it is his presence that is often found throughout the film to really guide Andrew towards the more philosophical elements of his quest for humanity. In addition, Embeth Davidtz does wonderfully as both Amanda Martin and her granddaughter Portia, whose generational relationships with Andrew become a cornerstone of the romance narrative, and ultimately his final push to accept humanity for all its fault. With these cast members, things are utterly brilliant.
But then you have Rupert Burns and Galatea. Don't get me wrong, Oliver Platt is a fantastic actor but the roboticist and his android assistant really shift the film's tone in very jarring ways. More Galatea that Burns admittedly. Rupert Burns was actually a pretty interesting character and his conversations with Andrew were often quite nuanced and helped the film to cover elements of humanity that would've been awkward coming from someone like Sam Neill's character. But when you pair him Galatea, who I can really only tonally compare with Jar Jar Binks, it leaves a weird feeling. That fact that Galatea also gets one of the last lines in the movie and a whammy line at that also leaves my feelings a little frazzled.
All in all, Bicentennial Man
certainly has its flaws and critics at the time of its release absolutely called them out and I think that, in some ways, they are correct. However, I also don't care all that much. I love this movie so very much and its discussion on the nature and nuances of humanity are truly wonderful to explore. Williams' performance is fantastic even if the script sometimes does him no favors, the side characters do their job well with a few notable standouts; and while the visuals are only slightly above average, the soundtracks is absolutely legendary and easily some of my favorite work by the late James Horner.
FINAL SCORE - 7.75/10
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